Game Library: “Home Shopping Network”

This energetic tie-breaker provides a sound example of a competitive game that can give an otherwise lagging show a boost to go out on. In competent hands Home Shopping Network offers a strong button when a more organically discovered Shape of Show alludes you.

The Basics

Two team representatives (one from each competing camp) leave the space and will serve as the home shopping network hosts upon their return. While absent, two different invented products are brainstormed and set: usually they each consist of three unrelated elements so each team has a unique item that is an “adjective noun that verbs” – such as a revolving television that ignites. With the assistance of a caller who serves as a timer and moderator, teams take turns pantomiming clues that describe their odd product while their “host” pitches and describes the unknown item to the home audience. The audience should applaud or similarly encourage the hosts as they get an element correct. When the caller announces “switch,” the active host should turn around and face away from the playing field as their opponent now turns to receive clues from their own teammates. The hosts continue to alternate their narratives inspired by their teammates strictly physical clues until one side successfully identifies their item. (If such a moment clearly seems unlikely, hosts can be asked to state their “best guess” and the audience can vote on which team was closest.)


Team A receives “oscillating loaf of bread that entertains” while team B gets “energetic spatula that calculates.” The two previously absent hosts return to the space and take their positions upstage, facing away from the audience, while their teammates wait to the side.

Caller: “Player A, you get the first twenty seconds starting… now!”

Host A spins around as their teammates rush to the stage and start to meticulously mime the activity of baking bread, pointing at the host whenever they are on the right track…

Host A: “If it’s 1:00am it’s time to get shopping! Thanks for joining me, Sarla, on this very special edition of ‘Around the Home’ where I’ll help you drag your living into the twenty-first century. Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘What if I don’t have a lot of spare dough for elevating my standard of living, Sarla!’ And that’s where I come in with this exciting and affordable product that no home should be without. It’s a slice above the rest…”

Caller: “Switch!”

Host A stops mid-phrase and turns around as Host B now faces their clue-giving team…

Host B: “Welcome back friends to the Home Shopping Network, and does your new best friend, Jane, have just the thing to make your life complete. Are you hungry for more in life…?”

The Focus

Though this format is loosely related to the category of endowment games, in reality it’s more of a charades affair that deploys good doses of “telling” rather than subtler “showing.” All of the techniques that you might use in the parlor game version – breaking words down into syllables, miming homonyms or tugging on your ear to denote a “sounds like” offering – should be liberally used here. That being said, leaning into character, story and playful connections – all more the domain of improvisation – will elevate the experience beyond simply a charm offensive.

Traps and Tips

1.) Sequencing. Venues can tend to have their own best practices for games such as these so make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to the preferred approach. I like pantomiming the noun element first as it tends to be a little more concrete and accessible. Once this is known you can then adapt it to reflect the obtuse adjective and verb components. Others see similar wisdom in tackling the product in the order in which it was elicited: adjective, noun, then verb. (To this point, if assuming the above strategy I’ll typically get the noun first, then the adjective and verb…) At the end of the day, do what works for your ensemble but just make sure everyone knows the assumed approach. Frustration awaits if the team is pantomiming the noun while their host is looking desperately for an adjective.

2.) Staging. On a proscenium stage the angles necessitated for visibility can prove tricky. When hosts stand upstage – on a higher level if at all possible – their teammates can mime in front of them ideally angling themselves in such a way that both the host and the audience can appreciate their moves. Placing these players diagonally across the stage helps a great deal in this regard, so if team A’s host is stationed upstage right their teammates perform downstage left. There is something exhilarating about the hosts snapping around between their turns with their team returning to the wing to “strategize” so take full advantage of this staging dynamic.

3.) Hosting. This is one of a mere handful of games where a waffling proclivity may actually serve you and your team! Assume a strong late night home shopping network persona and point of view, and confidently extol the endless virtues of your unknown product right from the get-go. Sell that item! Strive to keep this playful narrative developing, complete with ripe details that might assist your fellow players, while also tactically weaving in your best efforts to define the physical clues. A lot is lost when the hosts drop the game show façade and just blatantly guess. If you’re getting the feedback you’re close to the pertinent word, be careful that you don’t just keep repeating an incorrect approximation again and again. The pantomimers need new content to help move the ball further down the playing field.

4.) Pantomiming. It can be a fun conceit to try to immediately hit your host with your best effort to pantomime the whole product in all its absurd details as an opening move, but generally smaller pieces of the puzzle will prove more manageable and delightful. If you have more than two players at your disposal to mime clues be extremely cautious of creating split or competing focus. A crowded performance area also increases the likelihood that your host or the audience will miss a particularly helpful or amusing clue as well. As the other side competes you actually will have a few moments to briefly strategize and determine who or what choice should take the lead next. You’ll want to be brave and hit the stage with energy, but don’t overwhelm the game with scattered focus or empty movement.

5.) Calling. The caller has a lot of responsibility in this format to shape the game especially if it’s been slated to help the shape of show as well. It’s traditional to state changes will come at set intervals – fifteen to twenty seconds often works well – but don’t be afraid of having a “faulty” stop watch. If one team is excelling or benefiting from a clearly easier goal it’s in the spirt of the format for their time to move a little quickly. Similarly, if a host is on the cusp of correctly announcing their last element, skewing the playing field a little in favor of the underdogs can orchestrate a more exciting finish. Especially if you’re using this frame for your “out,” you don’t want to inadvertently let the steam run out of the whole event. Keep the stakes and urgency elevated. If the energy is deflating, quickly edit the game and deploy the voting system mentioned above.

In Performance

You can play this game with both teams working towards the same peculiar product – this certainly provides a quicker result. But even though the competition is likely only a thinly veiled conceit, I’ve found audiences react unfavorably when opposing teams quickly benefit from the hard won victories of their rivals’ efforts so the variant described above has become my norm. (If you use a common target it can actually become an interesting tactic for hosts not to actually say or repeat successful clues – saving the product elements for one last impressive salvo – so as not to gift them to the opposition, but this can prove rather challenging in practice!) I’ve confessed elsewhere that I’m disinclined towards parlor games masquerading as improvisation, but this offering can allow players to polish and present a variety of important skills, such as clear physicality, bravery, teamwork, and grace under pressure.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Shape of Show

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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